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Raising children in (post) apocalyptic novels and film

Before I was a father, I would see a movie like Spielberg's War of the Worlds, or read a post-apocalyptic book like Cormac McCarthy's The Road and, despite enjoying (if one can "enjoy" that kind of story) the writing and plot, I did not connect with one of the most central themes:

Raising children is tough, especially after the apocalypse.

Now, when I reflect on that text (or the pretty decent film adaptation), I am able to feel the anxiety and stress of the aptly-named Father (religious connotation, I see you) in a whole new light. It makes the world of the novel even scarier than it already is.

In the past two years, we have all struggled through a global pandemic, which you would not be criticized to say feels like an apocalypse at times. Like The Road, the end of this nightmare is not in sight, and for parents everywhere, it is a time of queasy stomachs and sleepless nights, as we consider the dangers and ramifications this era will have on our children.

Recently, I watched the HBO miniseries of the fabulous novel Station Eleven, as well as a Spanish import movie called The Wasteland. Both of these, in their own way, deal with an apocalypse and the fear placed upon adults put in a position of protector for a child.

Station Eleven takes some of the best parts of the Emily St. John Mandel book and adds a world of the inner psyche to it, an accomplished feat, since the novel already plumbed those depths to a great extent. British actor Himesh Patel plays Jeevan Chaudry, a frequently temperamental, often selfish, and therefore realistic Gen X'er, who suddenly finds himself the guardian of eight-year old Kirsten, whether he likes it or not. At times, he is the adult she needs in his proactive thinking; even before people start dropping dead from the virus, he fills up eight shopping carts of food, knowing he looks crazy but, y'know, he's right. Within minutes of that, however, he is ready to leave Kirsten on a subway platform, or at her front door, even though she cannot reach her parents. (You can probably guess why.) Most realistically (and honestly), he has a complete meltdown after being quarantined with Kirsten and his brother after 60-ish days. (Even though he's in a really nice Chicago apartment, I am surprised he lasted that long.)

What I like best about this subplot is its irony; the Jeevan we meet at the beginning is thinking all about himself, while the Jeevan 60 days later thinks only about Kirsten's well-being. As another famous comic book once said, "With great power comes great responsibility," and any parent can sympathize with the turmoil he's facing.

Dealing with the end of the world in a completely different way, The Wasteland is a Spanish film new to Netflix set in the early 19th century, as a family leaves society following years of civil war and unrest. They relocate to a vast nothingness, filled with endless, wheat-colored plains and faint outlines of mountains in the distance. Like in The Road and Station Eleven, the father, mother, and son here have escaped the horrors of the disintegrating life they once knew, and we can all relate to the feeling of wanting to get away from those in our communities who seem to almost thrill at carnage and anarchy. Yet, in this newfound land they live on (and that's being generous), they begin to sense a mythical creature, inching ever closer to them. The question remains, "Is it scarier to have society, in all its forms, surround you, or to have absolutely nothing?"

Writer and director Ahmad Bahrami is casting a metaphor for how we can try to run from our fears, but they will eventually catch up to us. For the viewer watching this in pandemic times, that might equate to something like "ignorance is bliss;" if we turn off the news, or close our eyes to the horrors in our immediate world, we might be able to ignore it for a while, but not forever. In The Wasteland, Salvador wants to teach his young son Diego how to "be a man," aware that they can only put off the encroaching darkness so long, while his mother, Lucia, believes it is too soon to learn of the world's evil ways. This inner struggle is one all parents face: at what point do we tell our kids about the sad and tragic parts in our histories so that they can learn from it, without frightening them too much? The debate we have with ourselves can be agonizing at times.

This question is put to the emotional test in The Wasteland when Salvador must leave the homestead in order to deliver an important message. Mother and son are left to their own wits as the unseen monster draws nearer. For awhile, Lucia proceeds as normal: playing games with her son, teaching him how to bake, while casting furtive glances at the horizon and eyeing the rifle in the corner of the room. The rifle, by the way, was Diego's birthday gift from his father, and has his name etched into the wood of it. If there was a more apt symbol for toxic masculinity and how violence is passed from one generation to another, I don't know what it is.

A year goes by without Salvador's return, and Lucia starts to come apart at the seams as the sole source of protection for young Diego. She's not a helpless damsel in distress, though; at one point, thinking she sees the monster outside the fence at night, she plunges into a thunderstorm with the rifle and fires wildly into the darkness. Her actions may seem erratic, and her psyche perhaps unbalanced, but further reflection proves her reaction reasonable. The instinct of protecting her child at any cost mixed with the paranoia and claustrophobia of being quarantined and scared about survival is a very human and rational one.

Being a parent is the central joy of my life, and books like The Road, TV shows like Station Eleven, or movies like The Wasteland, are all the more terrifying and touching because of how the characters handle that difficult balance. We live in a dangerous world, but characters like The Father, Jeevan, and Lucia, though fictional, remind us that, even in an apocalypse, we're not alone.

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